Good Question: How Can People With Mental Problems Get A Gun?

This story was originally posted on on Jan. 17.

Written by Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4) – “He used to scare me sometimes and that’s why I left him,” said Ashley Figueroa, a former girlfriend of Jared Loughner. “He would make me feel uncomfortable at times like he would clench his fists really right and almost have like a little tantrum and like flail his arms and kind of walk off.”

But that type of behavior shows some aversion to violence. Maybe he was angry, but he did walk off.

“The gunman had no expression on his face, it was blank,” said Mary Reed, one of the shooting victims.

At some point many believe Jared Loughner changed. Yet it doesn’t appear anyone acted to keep him away from weapons. Loughner bought a 9 millimeter semi-automatic pistol at a Tucson sporting goods store last fall. It was all perfectly legal.

“Mental illness by itself does not disqualify a person from buying a gun,” said the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s Lance Clem.

Loughner was not mentally ill. At least, not officially. While experts reviewing his public rants have indicated that he has shown signs of psychosis, no one who knew him appears to have acted to have him declared as such. Loughner was also not a convicted felon, which would have prevented him from obtaining a gun legally.

“Usually, it’s not done unless someone commits some kind of criminal act,” Clem said.

In Colorado the act of declaring someone mentally incompetent to carry a weapon goes along with the process of declaring them mentally unable to do many other tasks to run their own life. It’s called a declaration of “Mentally Deficient.”

“But these are people who have extreme mental health issues, they’re not people who just seem to be upset with the world,” Clem said. “Mental health issues are common … the finding of mental deficiency is not common.”

Rare and difficult. Having a family member declared deficient can add to the pain of families already suffering. On the CBS4 Facebook page, Robin wrote, “My adult daughter has Down syndrome and has been called ‘mentally deficient’ on a regular basis by various ‘professionals.’ It hurts to see that in writing.” She wrote of friends who have had children declared mentally deficient. “They say it is the most horrible experience — to go to a judge and testify that their children are ‘deficient.’ We have fought against doing that legally – but unfortunately, we will have to go there at some point. It hurts, hurts, hurts.”

In Colorado, when a person is declared mentally deficient, the information is shared with CBI, which adds it to the information used in the InstaCheck system. The system, generated after the shootings at Columbine High School, is designed to verify whether a person seeking to buy a gun is not prohibited from doing so. A licensed gun dealer checks with the system, the name of the person attempted to buy the weapon is checked against those records.

Many states however, don’t run their own checks and rely on the federal government. Arizona is among them. Even if someone is found mentally deficient in Arizona, there remains a communication gap.  The FBI does not have access to non-criminal databases in those states.

The declaration of mentally deficient happens in civil court. While the FBI can and does issue denials to convicted felons in states like Arizona, it is likely the information about someone’s declaration of mentally deficient has never made it to the FBI.


“We’re talking about the FBI collecting non-criminal databases and there are concerns about that,” Clem said.

Loughner’s family appears never to have sought to declare him mentally unfit to own a weapon. But even if they did, he might still have been able to buy the gun he used to shoot 19 people.


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